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How Many Humans Could the Moon Support?

How Many Humans Could the Moon Support? thumbnail

It’s the year 3000. Having used up all of Earth’s natural resources, humans have become a spacefaring race and established colonies on the moon. Vast, sealed domes cluster across its surface, housing cities populated by hundreds of thousands of people. This cold, gray rock has somehow become humanity’s new home.

Of course, this is pure science fiction. But no vision of the future is complete without an extraterrestrial colony of humans, and since the moon is the closest celestial body to our planet, it’s the easiest to imagine as our futuristic home.

But does this vision align with reality? Will the moon one day be a hot property, and if so, how many people could its unwelcoming landscape realistically support?

One way to answer that question, simplistically, is to consider the area of the moon. The moon’s surface area is about 15.9% of Earth’s overall land area (excluding the area of Earth covered by oceans). Technically, if we packed this area at the density of Earth’s most populous cities, we’d be able to fit trillions on the moon’s surface.

But how many people could fit on the moon’s surface is a very different question than how many people that world could sustainably support. And in that regard, the moon is definitely Earth’s poorer cousin.

“It’s a pretty barren place,” said Darby Dyar, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and a professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “Every species seeks to expand its ecological niche. But the new ‘niche,’ which is the moon, is very inhospitable for humans,” Dyar told Live Science.

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Air to breathe

Unlike on Earth, water doesn’t rain down freely on the lunar surface and collect into bodies we could drink from. Crucially, the moon also lacks an atmosphere with breathable air. Neither does Earth’s natural satellite have existing ecosystems that could conveniently support fields of agriculture. The moon is also vulnerable to solar storms, eruptions from the sun’s surface that send out electromagnetic radiation, which the moon — without the protection of a magnetic field — can’t deflect. There are also huge temperature extremes, and long, alternating periods of darkness and light, Dyar said.

All this may make life on the moon seem impossible. Yet surprisingly, it isn’t. In fact, the essentials for human existence — air, water, food and shelter — theoretically aren’t as unattainable on the moon as you might expect.

Related: Why Does the Moon Keep Flashing Us?

Take air. To support a starting population of a few hundred people on the moon, we’d have to start by transporting air to the lunar surface, pumping it into sealed structures in which humans would live. That seems unsustainable, but in the short term, it would actually be fairly cost-effective, said Markus Landgraf, the moon project manager with the European Space Agency. “People don’t use much air, and for a long time, we will not need to make the air on the moon. We can bring it in,” he said. “Transportation costs for that are still manageable.”

If that population grew to tens of thousands, however, we’d need to synthesize oxygen on the moon, an expensive process. But Landgraf said the growth of space exploration in the coming decades could make the process more economical.

That’s because propelling spacecraft requires oxygen, so if the demand goes up, “it makes more economic sense to build oxygen generators on the moon for rocket propellant, rather than for drinking water and air for people,” Landgraf said. That would drive down the production cost, making it cheaper to produce air for moon dwellers.

Water, water everywhere

What about water? Until a few decades ago, researchers believed the moon was completely dry. But now they know there’s a surprising amount of liquid spread across the lunar surface.

“We think water is left over from when the moon formed. And we know that comets, which are basically dirty snowballs, periodically impact the moon’s surface,” Dyar said. “There’s good evidence to suggest that those [craters] where comets impacted the surface still have ice reservoirs in them.”

Another water source, she said, comes in the solar winds that roar across space; charged with protons, these collide with electrons on the moon, forming hydrogen.

All this adds up to a decent amount of lunar water, perhaps enough to support a sizable population. And we’ve already developed technologies on the International Space Station to recycle drinkable water from astronaut’s shower water, urine and sweat. This can even use the moisture from their breath. On the moon, that technology could create a closed-loop water source for inhabitants.

In a 1995 artist's concept of a moon colony, a lunar mining facility harvests oxygen from the resource-rich volcanic soil of the moon's Mare Serenitatis, a vast lava plain.

In a 1995 artist’s concept of a moon colony, a lunar mining facility harvests oxygen from the resource-rich volcanic soil of the moon’s Mare Serenitatis, a vast lava plain.

(Image credit: NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings)

 

But even with recycling, Dyar said, those water reserves wouldn’t be infinite; recycling water over and over again does come with some loss, so reserves would need to be topped up once in a while. What’s more, extracting the moon’s water by crushing lunar rocks and dredging up ice from deep craters, would require huge, costly amounts of energy, Dyar pointed out.

“My personal feeling is that colonization of the moon is going to depend on us bringing hydrogen there,” she said. Transporting that would be costly, too: around $220,000 per kilogram, Landgraf said.

Without knowing how much water is currently on the moon’s surface, it’s also difficult to estimate how many people it could support. But we do at least know that it’s possibly enough to provide a relatively sustainable water source. In any case, Landgraf estimated that lunar pioneers wouldn’t need to tap the moon’s water resources for at least the first five to 10 years of settlement; it will be cheap enough to transport water up there and recycle it for the dozen or so humans who are first likely to call moon their home.

As for lunar agriculture, we could mimic Earth’s growing conditions with “almost-ecosystem-like closed domes,” Landgraf said. Nurtured by long bouts of sunlight and showered with recycled water, lunar agriculture could feasibly scale up to feed thousands. There’s already plenty of research to suggest that growing crops in space will work.

Fly me to the moon

There are still multiple unknowns about how we’d do all this in practice. But theoretically, natural resources could support tens of thousands, even millions, of people on the moon. So then, why aren’t there already hundreds of us up there, gazing down at Earth?

Because the biggest constraints to colonizing the moon aren’t necessarily limits to natural resources, Landgraf said, but the huge cost of transporting people up there by spacecraft. Doing it more economically would require bold technological leaps — like the invention of space elevators. If we had those, “then we’re talking about tens of thousands of people on the moon,” Landgraf said. “So, really, water isn’t the constraint here. It’s transportation.”

There’s another caveat, and this is where we return sharply to reality: For now, colonizing the moon isn’t actually the goal. Sure, we could view the moon as a kind of Noah’s ark in the event of an earthly apocalypse. But currently, international space agencies see the moon not as an outpost from disaster, but as a research hub — and a potential base from which to explore the rest of our solar system.

With that approach, Langraf said we could look to Antarctica for clues about human habitation. Probably the most lunar-like habitat on Earth, the Antarctic is home to fluctuating, seasonal population of between one and four thousand researchers who battle freezing, dry conditions to do their work. Since research currently drives planning on lunar habitation, that gives us an idea of how many people might realistically live on the moon in coming decades: a few thousand at a time, rather than millions or billions.

Even this population would probably taper off, replaced by cheaper, more efficient robots over time, according to Dyar. “As technology gets better, there’s very little reason why you really need to send a human to do scientific research,” she said.

However, that doesn’t mean our dreams of lunar citizenship are over. There’s one other factor: humanity’s unquenchable drive to explore. That could compel future generations to colonize the moon in the millions or use it as a launching pad for other expeditions into space.

“Humans are one of the few species that are always exploring, even if there’s no need,” Landgraf said. “[We’ve] been very successful with this strategy. Would it make sense to change that? I don’t think so.”

livescience



77 Comments on "How Many Humans Could the Moon Support?"

  1. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 4:37 pm 

    Sure thing lunatic. You have been so sloppy hiding your compulsion it is no longer a mystery. You are the only dumbfuck who cares. Oh and maybe your bro annoymouse and grandpa makato.! What a joke spending your life in a perpetual Davy trigger. It’s wonderful you live with failure everyday all day long. Fuck JuanP

  2. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 4:49 pm 

    BTW lunatic. Y’all got me perpetually triggered REAL Good agin.

    LMFDAO!!!

  3. Real JuanP on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 5:20 pm 

    Davy is like a rottweiler. Growling and baring his teeth against anyone that happens to come near his cage.

  4. JuanP ID theft and sock garbage on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 5:29 pm 

    Sloppy and a liar.

    Real JuanP said Davy is like a rottweiler. Growling and baring hi…
    Davy said BTW lunatic. Y’all got me perpetually triggered RE…
    JuanP said Antius “It would be both tragic and hilariou…
    supremacist muzzies jerk said dear super moscow goat SAWS SAW swt pbuh at issue…

    JuanP on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 4:00 pm
    Antius “It would be both tragic and hilarious, if we found proof that JuanP was an AI computer program, written by some bored adolescent, with the sole intention of eating Davy’s life.”
    ROFLMFAO! Most of the comments attributed to me are written by the entity stealing identities and using multiple logins. I don’t know whether this is a human or an AI. If it’s an actual person/s, I hope someone is paying them to do this. If it is an actual human doing this out of sheer insanity, it is someone to be deeply pitied, for sure.

    Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 4:49 pm
    BTW lunatic. Y’all got me perpetually triggered REAL Good agin. LMFDAO!!!

    Real JuanP on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 5:20 pm
    Davy is like a rottweiler. Growling and baring his teeth against anyone that happens to come near his cage.

  5. makati1 on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 5:46 pm 

    Davy is NOT a rottweiler, he is a yippy chihuahua with a bad attitude. Yip! Yip!

  6. Antius on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 6:07 pm 

    Allow me to introduce you to near-Earth asteroid Apophis.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/99942_Apophis

    In 2029, it will come within 31,000km of Earth. This would be the ideal point at which to deliver people and mining equipment.

    The asteroid has mass of some 61 million tonnes. A significant percentage of this is metals, of which 0.1% is platinum group metals. In fact, most platinum mines here on Earth are in asteroid impact craters.

  7. makati1 on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 6:31 pm 

    Antius, as it possibly collides with the earth because the ‘math’ was wrong, those tons will end life as we know it. Nice dream but it ain’t gonna happen. If it misses this time, there is always 2036. By then there will be no space activity as we will all be struggling to survive in the new world of climate change and 3rd world conditions everywhere.

    BTW:”Deliver” how? We can barely get to the space station and even the moon is not moving at 30.728 km/s or about 70,000 mph like Apophis. That is about 90+ times the speed of sound. Our fastest missiles fly at about 10 times the speed of sound, maybe.

  8. Duncan Idaho on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 6:35 pm 

    The Fat Boy really seems to be losing it.
    While he has packed everything near him with sociopathic criminals, even they must be getting nervous.

  9. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 6:37 pm 

    “Davy is NOT a rottweiler, he is a yippy chihuahua with a bad attitude. Yip! Yip!”

    Makato, that the best you can do? No wonder you are
    Fading away so quickly. Your mind is going. 80 will do that especially with heavy drinking.

  10. Antius on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 6:56 pm 

    Makati, remember that the Earth is also moving at 30km/s and the intercept angle is not more than about 10 degrees. So the relative velocity is not that great. It would take less propulsive work to reach this asteroid than it would the moon and the journey time would be shorter. Once there, the mining process will begin and the astronauts will live within the excavated volume, where they will be shielded from space radiation and temperature extremes.

    Your second point concerns the world being in complete poverty by 2029/36. That is certainly possible. But I would point out that India has a successful space programme, despite being a third world country.

    Musk has developed low cost rockets that could make this happen. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it will happen.

  11. Duncan Idaho on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 7:02 pm 

    But I would point out that India has a successful space programme, despite being a third world country.
    And they couldn’t even land a small vehicle on the moon.
    But they are not alone.
    The US relies on old Russian technology.
    That will soon end.

  12. Cloggie on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 7:28 pm 

    “ROFLMFAO! Most of the comments attributed to me are written by the entity stealing identities and using multiple logins. I don’t know whether this is a human or an AI”

    Neither nor.

    They are written by Schopenhauer’s Grandmaster of the Lie, “I AM THE MOB”.

  13. makati1 on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 7:36 pm 

    Antius, it is not possible so why even think about it? We have hit peak tech and as for space travel, it is all dreams at this point. It may have been possible 50 years ago, when cheap, plentiful energy was available, but not in today’s energy tightening world.

    Musk cannot even make a car that doesn’t spontaneously explode. He is an insane person soon to be put away for his crimes. He produces nothing but piles of bullshit.

    Any country can have a “space program’ but it does not signify sucess or even a future. What happened to the US ‘space program’? Dead, no matter what the USMSM claims. they cannot even make a plane that works (F35).

    India may not even exist in ’29’ if they piss off the Packs and nukes fly. They share the same problem of many countries today, insane leaders with visions of grandeur.

    Your view of the future in 10 years is not very realistic. Not one person today can even say for certain what will happen in 2020. I see the world leveled to 3rd world standards and nothing not necessary will happen by then.

  14. Antius on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 7:51 pm 

    It is entirely realistic. It requires only that we use capabilities that already exist. And we have heavy lift rocket vehicles that are quite capable of achieving a mission like this. And it’s worth noting that we would be going to this rock to carry out mining for valuable resources, that will hopefully be returned at a profit. I am not advocating a billion dollar boondoggle for shits and giggles.

    But as I said, just because it can happen, does not mean it will. Most of Musk’s efforts are focused on Mars, which unfortunately is not a realistic target for the foreseeable future.

  15. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 9:54 pm 

    I am Davy

    I am Skum

    I am DavySkum

    Hear me yap.

  16. The Church Lady on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 10:01 pm 

    DAVY is of his father the GRAND MASTER of HELL, and the desires of his father he covets. DAVY was a FORNICATOR (ebony) from the beginning, and does not stand in the TRUTH, because there is no TRUTH in him. When DAVY speaks a LIE, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a LIAR and the father of it.

    John 8:44

  17. supremacist muzzies jerk on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 11:37 pm 

    Any1 here a muzzie lover
    Silly me like asking anyone eats food

  18. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 11:43 pm 

    Im a idiot. Get used to it. Im gonna keep recking this board for ever.

    dumbasses

  19. supremacist muzzies jerk on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 11:44 pm 

    Hundreds billion of years since (((supremetard))) created heaven and earth I’ve warned ppl about muzzies I made no progress sort of like banging head against concrete concrete wins everytime

    But then I “reverted ” to a muzzie and now I’m Allah juiced best of humanity ever created. I bomb planes so no more planes I use camels and magic carpets instead
    Ann Coulter told me

  20. supremacist muzzies jerk on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 11:46 pm 

    I “reverted” to a muzzie the best of humanity Allah created
    Feel free to love me more loving muzzies is good
    Pay jizya 4 billion euros a month in Germany

  21. Davy on Wed, 2nd Oct 2019 11:51 pm 

    “Makato, that the best you can do? No wonder you are
    Fading away so quickly. Your mind is going. 80 will do that especially with heavy drinking.”

    Oops, sorry Makati1, Sir. My brains purty much mush now after decades living the high life and all that substance abuse. I no my family has a private jet and all you’re family can afford is a Buick, but I’s ready to make amends. Hows about we meat half way in Tenerife for some bottles of whiskey and a few lines.

    Old freind

  22. makati1 on Thu, 3rd Oct 2019 12:03 am 

    Antius, you prove your assertions…with reliable facts please.

    “we have heavy lift rocket vehicles that are quite capable of achieving a mission like this.”

    Proof please…

    “Most of Musk’s efforts are focused on Mars”

    Most of Musk’s efforts are to fleece the gullible $heep, nothing more. He has about as much knowledge of Mars as Trump…zero. An arrogant liar.

  23. Davy on Thu, 3rd Oct 2019 12:33 am 

    Trump is making america grate again makato. Thats why I voted for him. Hes wurkin hard!

    Obv., the the only person that matters out of 328 MILLION people in my country is me. Thats why I spend my hole life on this lame unmoderated forum. Cut i’m REAL Green an REAL Smrt Like.

    dumbasses

  24. Davy on Thu, 3rd Oct 2019 12:36 am 

    Oops, sorry evryone. I meant to say

    dumbass

  25. Davy on Thu, 3rd Oct 2019 12:43 am 

    BTW stupid dumbasses. Im gonna keep trying to censor everyones messages hear forever. even though all my attempts for over seven years so far have been a failure.

    hey, who’s yer most craziest dumbass?

    dumbasses

  26. Antius on Thu, 3rd Oct 2019 7:26 am 

    Makati, here is the Falcon Heavy capable of propelling 16.8tonnes of payload to a Mars transfer orbit. The delta-V required to intercept Apophis would be lower and the spacecraft needs no weight budget for landing on a 300m wide rock.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_Heavy

    Musk’s planned upgrade is the Big Falcon Rocket, which will have a lift capacity of 100te to Mars transfer orbit when (and if) completed in 2023. It will require on orbit refuelling to achieve that. For the time being, Falcon Heavy is what we’ve got.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BFR_(rocket)

    It would take multiple launches to deliver the required payload with Falcon Heavy. Probably only a few using the BFR. But certainly achievable. The cost of the launches would be several hundred million dollars. But the value of platinum group metals in this asteroid (assuming a 10% metal content) would be $hundreds of billions (i.e. 60billion kg x 10% metal x 0.1% platinum x $50,000/kg = $300bn).

    Other metals and materials (i.e. cobalt) would also be valuable on Earth. Bulk materials like iron, magnesium and silicon, would be useful in Earth orbit to kick start space manufacturing activities. Some 60million tonnes of the stuff is enough to begin large scale manufacturing of solar power satellites and solar powered transport ships, to ferry people and materials between low Earth orbit and high Earth orbit, the moon and near Earth asteroids.

  27. five nights at freddy's on Thu, 10th Oct 2019 9:21 pm 

    I love all posts, I really liked it, I would like more information about it, because it’s very cool

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